BY GLENN GARVIN
Four decades ago, Peter, Paul and Mary had a minor hit with an old folk song called Cruel War, sung by a young woman to her sweetheart as he prepared to leave with the army:
I’ll tie back my hair, men’s clothing I’ll put on
I’ll pass as your comrade, as we march along
I’ll pass as your comrade, no one will ever know
Won’t you let me go with you?
— No, my love, no.
Turns out it was more than just a song. Full Metal Corset, an absorbing History Channel documentary debuting tonight, reveals that the Civil War was not just brother against brother, but sister against sister: “From Bull Run to Gettysburg, hundreds of women disguised themselves as men to fight for the North and South. They are the secret soldiers of the Civil War.”
Female combatants go back at least to the time of Joan of Arc, and a handful of American women found their way into the fighting during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, as Full Metal Corset notes. But the confused internecine passions of a nation turning against itself in the Civil War truly aroused something fierce in women: Thousands volunteered for the armies of both sides — and many refused to take no for an answer.
Full Metal Corset tells its story largely through the eyes of a pair of women who may actually have shot at each other during the battle of Bull Run in 1861. Sarah Emma Edmonds served as nurse — that was still a male-only profession — and courier in the Union army, while Loretta Velazquez was an officer in a Confederate infantry unit that she raised herself.
Like so many citizens of the relatively young United States, both Edmonds and Velazquez were born elsewhere: Edmonds in Canada, Velazquez in Cuba. But their paths to the army were quite different.
Edmonds, fleeing a marriage arranged by her father and finding practically no options available to a single woman on her own, had been living as a man for two years before the war broke out, selling Bibles for a living. Her enlistment was simply the logical extension of her new identity, which she regarded as “my emancipation.”
Velazquez, on the other hand, was happily married to a soldier and — like the young woman in Cruel War — begged to go with him when he joined the Confederate army. When he left without her, she defiantly cut her hair, pasted a fake mustache on her lip, and used military skills she learned from her husband to win a commission as a lieutenant.
In some respects, their deceptions were easier than they might seem with a century of hindsight. Given the gender norms of the age, it rarely occurred to anyone that somebody with a short haircut in men’s clothing was anything but male. And the personal hygiene habits of the era meant soldiers rarely removed their uniforms for bathing or cleaning.
But even wearing shapeless uniforms, Edmonds bound her breasts and Velazquez wore an elaborate set of wire braces to disguise their figures. And seeking medical attention for a wound was out of the question. Two years into the war, Edmonds gave up her disguise to be treated for malaria; Velazquez did the same after she was hit by shrapnel at the battle of Shiloh.
Both women were frustrated that their military service was cut short. (Velazquez made up for it by heading north and working as a Confederate spy.) Even so, they were luckier than some of their sisters-in-arms. As Edmonds tended casualties amid the hopeless mayhem of the battle of Antietam, where 23,000 lost their lives, one mutilated young soldier gripped her arm. ”Please bury me with your own hands,” the soldier begged, “that after my death, none may know that I’m female.”